(This interview originally appeared on GeekDad here.)
Every year, the American Library Association breaks out the medals and awards children’s and young adult books with some of the most prestigious awards they have to offer. The big two—and those with which most people are familiar—are the Newbery Medal (for outstanding contribution to children’s literature) and the Caldecott Medal (for most distinguished American picture book for children).
Graphic novels have always had a somewhat … uncomfortable relationship with these awards. Some claim that they shouldn’t be considered alongside more “traditional” children’s books, and some argue that there should be an entirely separate award for graphic novels.
This year, for the first time ever, graphic novels were recognized in a huge way. This One Summer, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki and written by Mariko Tamaki, was awarded with both a Caldecott Honor and a Printz Honor (for excellence in literature written for young adults). This was the first graphic novel to ever be recognized with a Caldecott and only the second to snag a Printz.
This One Summer is a coming-of-age story about two friends, one summer, and a whole host of life changes. Firmly entrenched on many Best of 2014 lists, the book was a surprise pick for the Caldecott simply because it targets an older demographic than most honorees. (Because of some more mature themes, I’d recommend the book for middle-schoolers and up.)
I had the opportunity to chat with cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki soon after they won the awards about the book, growing up, and remembering to knock before opening any doors.
Jamie Greene: I’ll begin with the obvious: congratulations! This One Summer is the first graphic novel to win a Caldecott Honor and only the second to win a Printz Honor. That’s huge! It’s also very much unlike the “traditional” Caldecott book. It deals with some very mature themes. Were you surprised to be among the winners?
Mariko Tamaki: It’s not surprising given the reception this book has received, but certainly one never expects to get an HONOR.
JG: Most of the coverage of the ALA awards has been overwhelmingly positive. Having graphic novels awarded with a Caldecott, Printz, and Newbery is groundbreaking. Unfortunately, I’ve also read some concern about your book getting the Caldecott Honor—not because it’s a graphic novel but rather because of its content. To many people (parents especially), the Caldecott equals picture books, and picture books equal young kids. I think it’s fair to say that This One Summer is not entirely appropriate for most elementary school kids. How do you respond to that criticism?
Jillian Tamaki: I suppose I don’t feel personally responsible for determining what is appropriate. Mariko and I have never felt particularly bound to demographics—it’s been publishers and librarians who have slotted our books into YA categories. Which pleases me, but I don’t consider myself a YA creator. Librarians are much more qualified to say what is appropriate/needed in regards to readers and awards.
MT: In terms of being appropriate, I think there’s some things that younger readers might miss in TOS, which is stuff that the younger characters in the book might miss too. I don’t think that mars the meaning of the book. There’s a hint that inappropriate means “traumatizing,” and there I’m dubious because there is nothing in this book you can’t find on your average television show, aside from swearing. Overall, I trust parents and librarians to make informed decisions when they read books and share books with young readers.
JG: Do you think the ALA should have a separate award for graphic novels?
MT: I couldn’t say. If it means they consider more books, sure.
JG: Winning a major award will inevitably attract new readers. Winning a Caldecott might also expose your work to an audience you may not have reached otherwise. What do you hope they’ll take away from the book?
JT: That comics can tell all sorts of different stories.
JG: The book is often described as a “coming-of-age story,” and it is, but it presents a surprisingly complex portrait of two young women on the cusp of adulthood. There’s a lot more going on here than just a girl’s first crush. In your ideal world, what message do you want readers (particularly young girls) to come away with?
MT: I can’t say there’s any one message. I think the conversations between Windy and Rose are pretty meaningful in terms of what it means to judge other girls as a girl. I always hope that girls would be nicer to each other. Maybe that’s asking a lot from a book.
JG: What surprised me the most when I first read the book is how you manage to balance seriously weighty themes such as teenage pregnancy, drug use, infertility, and suicide with a persistent sense of optimism. I’m reading about these potentially awful things, but I’m uplifted and hopeful. How do you do that?
JT: Hm. I think there is a beauty in recognizing your struggles and experiences in other people. Even fictional people.
JG: Jillian, I read in an interview that you actually eavesdropped on real teenagers while you were writing the book. Was that eye-opening at all?
JT: We both spent a time keeping an eye and ear out for preteen conversations. They are very loud and spazzy.
JG: As the parent of a girl who is much younger than Rose and Windy, I have much of this to “look forward to” in our future. And, frankly, it kind of terrifies me. Please tell me it won’t be so bad.
MT: Just knock before you go in her room.
JG: What can we look forward to next from both of you?
MT: My next book is a prose YA novel called Saving Montgomery Sole. It will be out in the winter of 2016 with Roaring Brook/Penguin Canada.